The hard-line Stalinist regime in North Korea remains atop a leading monitor’s list of the 50 countries that most severely persecute Christians.

Open Doors, in its 2006 “World Watch List,” says there are reports of tens of thousands of Christians suffering in North Korean prison camps. While no precise figures are available, Open Doors estimates hundreds of Christians were killed by the Pyongyang regime last year.

Many North Koreans have become Christians after crossing the border into China – in many cases to escape famine – and living among local believers. When the North Koreans return home, some are exposed as Christians and face torture and death, Open Doors said.

“North Korea is the most repressive nation in the world,” said Open Doors USA President Carl Moeller. “… It breaks my heart to hear some of the atrocities against our brothers and sisters there.”

The annual list ranks countries according to the intensity of persecution, based on evaluations and testimonies obtained by Open Doors’ indigenous contacts, field workers and church members.

Open Doors has launched a Prayer Campaign for North Korea that coincides with the North Korea Freedom Coalition’s North Korea Freedom Week, April 24-30.

Second on the World Watch List is Saudi Arabia, followed by Iran, Somalia, Maldives, Bhutan, Yemen, Vietnam, Laos and China.

In addition to North Korea, countries with communist governments in the top 10 include Vietnam, Laos and China. Islamic-dominated countries are Saudi Arabia, Iran, Somalia, Maldives and Yemen. Buddhism is the state religion of Bhutan.

Open Doors said more than 70 expatriate Christians were arrested last year during worship at private homes in what has been called the kingdom’s largest crackdown on Christians in a decade. The U.S. State Department, in its annual reports on religious persecution, has determined religious freedom does “not exist” in Saudi Arabia, where the strict Wahabbi interpretation of Islam is the only religion allowed. Any conversion from Islam to another religion is punishable, in accord with Islamic law, by death.

In Iran, religious freedom for Christians deteriorated further with the victory of mullah-backed parties at the beginning of 2004. Then, with the election of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last June, a new wave of persecution of Christians began. Ahmadinejad hailed his election triumph as a new Islamic revolution that will spread throughout the world and pledged to restore an “Islamic government.” Since then, many Christians have been rounded up for harassment, arrested and beaten, Open Doors said. One house church pastor was killed last November.

Yemen was the only country to join the top ten this year, at No. 8. Last year, several Christian converts were beaten and arrested for their faith, Open Doors said.

Afghanistan dropped out of the top 10, moving from No. 10 to No. 11.

In addition, conditions for Christians deteriorated last year in Uzbekistan – from No. 15 to No. 12 – as the government enacted measures restricting religious freedom after suppression of the popular uprising in Andijan.

In India, an apparent rise in violence against Christians by radical Hindus reacting to evangelism moved the country’s ranking from No. 34 to No 26.

Bangladesh went from No. 46 to No. 39 after seeing a rise in intolerance and atrocities against minorities, Open Doors said.

Improvements were witnessed in Vietnam (No. 3 to No. 7), Laos (No. 4 to No. 9), Afghanistan, Sudan (No. 19 to No. 27), northern Nigeria (No. 25 to No. 28), Colombia (No. 36 to No. 44) and southern Mexico (No. 31 to No. 48).

Church leaders in Vietnam and Laos said they saw improvement as their governments allowed construction and renovation of church buildings and conducting of training. In Laos, Christian leaders in the south engaged in many church activities with little or no government interference.

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